The choice of cheap fares to Bali on Lion Air turns out to be a bit irksome, as both on the onward and return journeys, my flight faces inordinate delays. I request to be put on an earlier flight for the journey back to Jakarta, on the plea of a connection back to India and the attendants quickly oblige. The last row that I am assigned is no fun though and on a stormy rain-battered night, I find solace in all the prayers that I can recall!
The reason I decide to set out for Bali a day after what is called Silence Day (Nyepi Day) is because on this day the whole island falls silent and the airport shuts down. In today’s world of incessant chatter, it is fascinating to learn that for 24 hours, television and radio stations go off the air and that the use of electricity and lighting is forbidden. This is taken seriously; nobody ventures out on the streets and everyone speaks in hushed whispers, whilst physical activity, including cooking is frowned upon. Even stranger to find is that this date coincides with the Balinese New Year, which the Hindus there use as a time for self-reflection. On the run-up to Nyepi, Hindus follow cleansing and purification rituals including the Melasti ceremony the day before, which involves throwing offerings into the sea. On my next visit to Bali, I think that I will make sure that I am around to experience this day of silence, as it is a rarity to experience this, except if one were an ascetic who has disappeared into the forests.
When I walk out of Denpasar Airport, I immediately get the feeling that I am in the land of holiday-makers, looking at the casual wear and open slippers of all visitors. Huge statues greet me at the airport and on my journey to Hotel Muthiara Bali, I discover to my surprise that these are of Hindu Gods. It appears odd to find this Hindu island peacefully co-existing in a Muslim country with a population that is upward of 95% Muslim. Everywhere in Bali, I get used to being asked, “Are you Hindu?” whilst a gentleman at Jakarta Airport enquires if I am going to Bali for “religious tourism,” as the term is now called, for people who choose to visit places with the sole purpose of worshipping at religious shrines. This term is not reserved for any one religion though.
Since I am travelling off season, I manage to get a good rate at a hotel called Muthiara Bali. I am greeted with a welcome drink in the reception area and then have to walk a short distance to reach my private villa. The exciting part is the exclusive swimming pool available to guests which one can use at any time. Another advantage is that the villa comes equipped with a kitchenette, crockery, cutlery, a fridge, microwave and a gas burner, for those who plan longer stays and tire of local food. This will be of immense help to vegetarians, many of whom have told me that they travel with their rations. Indonesian vegetarian fare is limited and how much “Gado Gado” (a salad) or “Nasi Goreng” (an Indonesian pulao) can one partake of? But the streets of Seminyak are dotted with restaurants and there is a wide variety with menu cards being prominently displayed along with the rates. I find myself opting for Italian food quite often, since it offers an array of vegetarian choices. On the first day the chef comes out to have a chat. He has worked with Indian chefs elsewhere and the sign is visible with a dish on the menu titled, Madras Chicken Curry Pizza!
I find that a lot of the restaurants are run by expatriates who have decided to make Bali their home. This makes me wonder as to how much the locals benefit from the foreign exchange that comes in. The exchange rates in Bali are certainly better than in Jakarta and money-changers are a dime a dozen. But it might be prudent to visit reputed well-lit places. Once I find myself in a dimly lit alley where I am led in for an exchange. Luckily there is some confusion about the condition of the Indonesian Rupiah handed to me and I decide to beat a hasty retreat. Later, I hear of tourists who have been gypped of a couple of 100,000 Rupiah whilst involved in a money exchange. 100 USD translates into 1 million Indonesian Rupiah, which does go a long way. Food prices are reasonable as are clothes, which are procured at sales. Though the Rupiah is a weak currency, nobody seems to be in poverty here nor are there signs of great wealth. There is not a beggar in sight, nor do shopkeepers chase you and force you to buy.
One of the greatest advantages of Bali is that everyone speaks English, making it possible to carry on a decent conversation with your driver, unlike in Jakarta where I have to resort to sign language!
The Balinese have their own language and one gets a sense that they feel that they are the best thing to happen to Indonesia. The driver who takes us around keeps plugging for Bali saying it tops in food, drink, artefacts and clothes. No doubt, the Balinese are extremely artistic and signs of their creativity are visible everywhere. I visit a Batik factory and see the processes. The Batik here is different from what one would see in India, or even in Jakarta or Sri Lanka, but it is definitely attractive. The artistry of the Balinese is visible everywhere and I am able to pick up some very unusual creations like a fruit basket with a netted covering and other knick-knacks. The wood carvings are exquisite to behold and the artisans manage the most original of creations.
Driving through Ubud can be such a thrill, as everything seems so close to nature. There are no glass and concrete structures as are visible in Jakarta and other South Asian cities. It is as if man and nature have decided to peacefully coexist, as posh hotel buildings appear cheek by jowl with paddy fields, where one might even spot people working. On the main road from Kintamani to Ubud, I stop by to see the Tegalalang Terraced Rice Fields. There isn’t time to go around so I just take pictures of the superb views. What is of concern in Bali is the desire of the locals to charge for things like walking down the terraced rice fields or to charge for visits to certain beaches like the Pandawa beach. To me it seems a bit unfair to levy a fee for viewing nature’s bounty.
For a small charge, one can enter the Holy waters temple in Ubud. Walking around certain areas is permitted whilst there are private areas used by locals for actual worship. Wearing a sarong is compulsory here, as well as at another temple that I stop by en route. These are available for hire, along with a sash, with an optional donation box. For those who have brought a change of clothes, there is the possibility of a holy dip in the pool. It is a surprise to see many Westerners following this seriously, as the priests tell them stories linked with the temples and the prevailing deities. The colorful statues visible all around make for interesting photo opportunities. But the Hindu gods here are more akin to Buddhist figures and I find it hard to place them with the more familiar outlines from back home. The place exudes tranquility and one does enjoy a sense of peace, as the cool breeze wafting through the trees blows on to one’s face.
Wherever one goes in Bali, it is a common sight to see offerings placed on palm leaves. These are visible outside shops, hotels, houses and are offered several times a day. One wonders whether the ritual preoccupations of Hinduism are as much a priority in Bali, as they are with Hindu Indians. But I do not get an opportunity to ask anyone so it might be unfair to speculate on whether there is a deeper understanding of the philosophy of Hinduism.
A visit to Bali is incomplete without a visit to the beach, and one morning is devoted to a walk to Seminyak. It is a bit of a trudge, especially on the return when the sun is out, but worth it, as I stop to make small talk with fellow travelers and swap stories. The beach is nothing to write home about, as I am told is the case with several beaches in Bali.
Seminyak, where my hotel is located, is a happening place and the evenings come alive with the myriad lights of restaurants and shops. It is fun to walk around and look for bargains and sales. Like in Thailand, massage parlours are a dime a dozen, so on my last day I have a shot at this too. In comparison with an Ayurvedic massage back home, it pales though.
Bali depends solely on tourism and is perhaps the greatest tourism grosser for Indonesia. Though I visit during off season, there are tourists all around. Initially, I keep saying “Makasi,” which is the Indonesian word for “thank you” until I am corrected and told that in Balinese, it is “Sukhsom,” which appears to have shades of Indian languages and could be interpreted as, “May you be happy,” as people join their hands when they use this phrase.
Undoubtedly parts of Bali offer different things to different people. It is little wonder then that people go back there again and again. “Sukhsom” to Bali for all the happy times spent there!
Melanie Kumar is a Bangalore-based writer and literary fiction reviewer who has been freelancing for more than 15 years now. She holds degrees in English and mass communications.